Immigrating to the US: My path from non-immigrant to permanent resident
June 26, 2020
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Amid the recent worker visa ban and green card process halt due to growing unemployment in the US, I was surprised to see so few American citizens knowing what the visas impacted are, while, at the same time, having a lot of opinions about them. I saw too many people debating on Twitter whether the current immigration policy was a net good or a net negative to the country, without even knowing what rights an H1-B visa holder had or thinking that getting a green card was as easy as stepping into a DMV to get a driver's license. I wanted to write this blog post a while ago and thought that maybe this was a good time to explain, in the simplest way possible what it takes to obtain an H1-B visa, an L1-B visa, and finally, a green card as I experienced first hand the full American immigration process from being a non-immigrant worker in 2016 to be a US permanent resident at the end of 2019.
I did my best not to make this a comment on the current administration.
What the hell are work visas?
To put it simply a work visa is a temporary working permit to allow a foreign national to live and work in the US. The US government allows each year for companies to sponsor visas to get workers from abroad to come and work in the US for a certain duration. There are a lot of different types of visas, but for the purpose of this article, I'll only focus on the 2 visas I held: L1-B and H1-B.
In 2016 the startup I was working for in Spain got acquired and incorporated by a US-based company. My employer offered to sponsor my visa to get me to work on US soil, and as the Spanish office was incorporated under that company's name, I could qualify for an L1-B visa.
The L1 Visa is for managerial or executive professionals transferring to the US from within the same company, or a subsidiary of it. There are 2 categories possible for this visa:
- L1-A for managers or executives.
- L1-B for employees with specialized knowledge.
As I wasn't a manager or an executive, I fell into the second category (hence the B in L1-B).
The requirements to qualify for this visa were the following:
- I had to be an employee of the company or subsidiary for at least a year
- I needed to have specialized knowledge which meant I had to prove that the work I was doing for the US company could only be done by me. As I was the maintainer of some key services of the software that the company was selling, that played in my favor. I had to write an entire essay with proof of my contributions to these key services and why I was essential to the business. That wasn't easy because pretty much anything too vague could fall in the category of "we can find some US worker to do this".
After filing my application with immigration lawyers, I had to wait about 6 months for my visa to be "approved". Yes, the quotes are necessary here, because the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS) decision regarding my immigration case was not enough to guarantee that I could work in the US. I still had to:
- get an appointment at a US embassy
- get interviewed and screened
- give my passport so they could apply and stamp the visa
The interview in itself was not that intense but I remember being terrified to make a tiny mistake and get my visa denied. I kept my answers short, focused (mainly yes's and no's), properly state my employer's name, my degree. I also had to bring several required documents: diplomas, copy of and original passport, transcripts from college (yes they checked those), etc.
Long story short, after a few weeks I got approved, which gave me the following rights as a US non-immigrant worker:
- Live and work in the US up to 5 years
- Pay taxes in the US (just to make it clear to anyone spreading false rumors that immigrants/non-immigrants do not contribute to the US, don't you worry we pay the same taxes as American citizens do)
- That's it.
On the other hand, I was unable to:
- Change jobs
- Start my own business
- Qualifying for social benefits
- Enter the US territory easily (everyone who experienced the immigration queue at SFO after a 12+ hours flight can tell you, it's pretty annoying)
- Change job duties: they had to remain the same to keep my visa valid. For instance, I could not switch from Software Engineering to Product Management. For that, I'd need to reapply for a visa
- Vote or participate in politics
But, hey, I was the happiest I've ever been, I got the opportunity to work in San Francisco, that's something I couldn't have imagined happening to me.
After a few months of working in the US office of my company, the HR department contacted me and asked me if I was willing to apply for an H1-B visa. I immediately said yes because the H1-B visa offers quite a few "upgrades" compared to what I had on an L1-B visa. Let's take a look at the updated list:
- Live and work in the US up to 6 years: First 3 years, then I would have to apply again for a second H1-B.
- Pay taxes in the US (yup, still doing it)
- Change jobs
In my situation at that time, the H1-B meant that I'd have better job security: I could go work for another company if I wanted to or was laid off. However despite this new perk I still had to follow the following rules to keep my visa:
- The position and job duties at the new company had to stay the same
- If I were to be unemployed I could only stay so up to 60 days to maintain my status. Failure to do so, I'd lose my visa and have to go back home.
Anecdote: At the beginning, I'd train for coding interviews once a month to be ready to interview in no time in case I'd get laid off. 60 days can be a pretty short amount of time to land a new job.
- My new employer and I would have to go through a tedious process and lots of paperwork (see the info card "Changing Jobs on an H1-B" for more details)
Applying for an H1-B visa, though, is a whole other story. Every year up to 65000 H1-B visas can be issued. As you can imagine, more than 65000 applicants are registering their case to get a visa, so the USCIS conducts a random selection, also called "lottery", to select the 65000 people that might get a chance to get a visa. What happens if you're not selected? Try again the following year. And if you fail again? Try again.
Changing Jobs on an H1B
While it is possible, it is not as smooth as one might think. Here's a checklist of some of the key paperwork that the new employer needs to submit to the USCIS: Submit an employment letter detailing the position, duties, start date, and other relevant information on the job
- File a Labor Condition Application (LCA) and wait until it is certified
- Give notice to the collective bargaining representative for their employees
- File the visa petition and submit the relevant documents
- Pay any necessary filing fees
As you can see from what is stated above: telling that the immigration system is bringing "cheap labor" to the country or "stealing the work of the citizens", well ... that's not really true. The LCA has been made to prevent that. If companies try to bring cheap labor by under-paying their non-immigrant employees, they are technically breaking the law.
I was extremely lucky: I got through the lottery! Now I needed to contact my immigration lawyers to finish my petition, and I ended up getting my H1-B visa approved in August of 2017.
Starting October 1st of that year my H1-B could become current, I wanted to go home for Christmas, thus needed a new stamp on my visa and had to do the whole embassy interview again. I remember being very anxious not getting my passport back in time before my return flight from France to SF, luckily it only took 4 days for the embassy to send my passport to my parent's address with my shiny new visa on it.
Here are some takeways for this first part:
- getting a visa to work in the US is pretty hard, requires a lot of time, the help of immigration lawyers sometimes, and also money: companies sponsoring visas pay a lot of application fees
- the H1-B visa is pretty restrictive when it comes to wages and position. Don't fall directly into the conservative narrative claiming that all non-immigrant workers are "stealing jobs", it is 1000x easier for a US company to hire a US worker, and if they look elsewhere on top of that it's probably because they have to remain competitive in their respective markets.
From non-immigrant to permanent resident
We've seen recently through the many bans and executive orders related to immigration that, despite being hard to get, these visas do not guarantee that you can stay through the entire duration. Even pre-COVID, I couldn't feel "safe" in this country without obtaining the status of permanent resident i.e. a green card.
The process to get it though is long is tedious. I'm a French national, born in France (very important, it's the country of birth that matters when applying for a green card), white, male, i.e. the most privileged possible person for this process. Despite that, it still took from October 2017 until November 2019 to get my permanent resident card in hand. To put that in perspective, right now, as I'm writing these words, it can take up to 50 years for an Indian national to get the same piece of paper I got.
I started the employment-based green card process also called EB in late 2017. Up to 140000 EB green cards can be granted every year. The whole process consisted of 3 steps that will be more or less detailed below.
I only kept the most important steps to keep it as short as possible
- File up the "worksheet": detail all the work duties yet another time, the salary, the current position held by the applicant, proof of current and past employment, letters from all my previous manager,...
- Drafting a job notice, and advertising for the job position of the applicant: the company sponsoring must advertise for the position of the applicant in the newspaper, on its website, and its office for at least 10 business days for US workers to apply. If no one applies and qualifies for the position within 30 days the process may continue.
- Prevailing Wage Request: the salary and the job description have to be submitted to the Department Of Labor (DOL) to ensure that the applicant is paid accordingly. This step takes about 6 weeks.
- Filling the Program Electronic Review Management (PERM): the system used for obtaining Labor Certification and is the first step for certain foreign nationals in obtaining an employment-based immigrant visa. This step takes 4 to 6 months.
When I reached step 4 we were already in December 2018. The PERM took about 3 months to get approved on my end, which let me continue the process in March 2019. As you can see, despite taking longer to get approved, this entire step is pretty similar to the one done when applying for my H1-B. It ensures that US workers are still prioritized when it comes to employment.
It is important to specify that, during that whole process, changing employer is almost impossible. Getting laid off or getting a new job or job duties mostly means that I'd have to restart the whole process from zero 😱. This was most likely the most stressful part for me and caused many sleepless nights.
The i-140 and i-485
The next 2 steps are run concurrently and can be the longest depending on the applicant's country of birth.
There are 5 main categories for green cards, which you can land in based on your country of birth:
- Rest Of World (ROW)
I fell in the ROW category as I'm born in France.
- File the i-140 form, also called Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. It allows a foreign national to work in the US permanently. This form had a lot of overlap with the PERM, but this time had to be sent to USCIS instead of DOL. I chose to submit it for Premium Processing, as it brings down the time it takes to get it approved from 6 to 8 months to only a week. It cost me about $1440 to do so.
- Pass a medical exam. I had to go to an immigration doctor to get a checkup, give an up to date list of all the vaccines I've ever had (it was a pain because my vaccination record was written in French), and get some extra vaccines. This was not covered by my health insurance: $1200.
- The biometrics appointment. After receiving my i-140 approval in May of 2019, I got my biometrics registered again: photo + fingerprints.
- File the i-485 form, also called Application to Register Permanent Residence. This is the main form that once approved would grant me the status of permanent resident of the US. The processing time for this one ... no one knows. It can be counted in months, or years. The processing time depends on your country of birth, which field office is going to process your case. At this point, the only thing I could do was wait.
I submitted my case end of May 2019. Just about 2 months later I got "scheduled for an interview" which was perhaps the luckiest thing that could have happened to me, instead of waiting almost a year, it took only a few weeks to reach this step. I was scheduled for the interview on the 26th of August. I had to go to a USCIS office to answer a series of questions to a USCIS officer and verify if my paperwork was still in order.
I received my approval notice for my i-485 and shortly after my green card in hand the first week of November 2019. Only immigrants who went through the process know the feeling of all the anxiety and stress linked to their status in the US just suddenly going way.
Here's the list of perks I got thanks to this new piece of paper:
- Live and work in the US.
- Pay taxes in the US (yup, still doing it)
- Change jobs without going through any tedious process
- Start my own business
- Qualifying for social benefits
- Enter the US territory easily
- Change job duties
- Qualify for the citizenship program after 4 years
Top 5 of the most insane things that happened to me through this process:
- The US government shutdown in late 2018, luckily the DOL got its budget in September so my PERM was not impacted
- The mailman put several key immigration papers in the wrong mailbox. Luckily I had a very nice neighbor who brought them to me. That included several appointment notices were the dates and locations were only available in these letters. Most information or dates present in these notices, were not available online. If they ended up lost, I would simply never know about them, and this would have jeopardized the whole process.
- My parents had to sign in front of a notary an affidavit to prove that they were my parents and that my birth certificate was indeed an original one. Luckily they scheduled a trip to visit me in SF at the right time so it wasn't super hard to do.
- At the end of the interview at the USCIS office, I was expecting to get at least a verbal approval. Sadly, all the green cards for the fiscal year 2019 were already granted. I had to wait until October 1st for my case to continue to be processed, from that point I've never heard back from the USCIS ever again, nor did I get any status update for my case until I got the card in hand.
- The company sponsoring my green card sold off my business unit 5 days after I got my green card. Thus my employer changed. If it would have been earlier, it would have slowed down the whole process, and I might have had to even restart some steps
- Green Cards are not as easy to get as some US citizen say they are
- I'm exhausted by this visa and green card process to this day
- I'm probably an immigration expert at this point
- I feel extremely lucky to have gotten all my paperwork before the pandemic. If it wouldn't have been the case, my current situation would have been far more precarious as I still would have been under an H1-B visa, due for renewal in September, with a visa ban in my category
- I'm grateful to have been given the chance to do this and I believe I'm a net positive to this country
- Was it worth the time, the stress, and the effort? Yes, yes and yes
Whenever I have to explain what the US immigration process looks like, and I don't have the time to talk about it like I just did in this article, I always quote this tweet:
One comparison that could help them understand: you know the kind of experience you get at the DMV? Getting a visa is 10x more kafkaesque and frustrating, and takes several months (to be repeated every few years, for 5-15 years until you get a green card) https://t.co/qYFMJCXuaQ
I feel like a lot of US citizens don’t quite get how hard it is to get an immigrant visa even if you are super qualified—many friends/family have struggled w the H1-B lottery or spent months applying for an O1 or got denied entry even though they have MIT degrees/great jobs/etc
A few years back, I imagine it would have been a no-brainer for most to bring their talent and specialized skills through the work visa and green card program to the US. However, in 2020, with all the paperwork, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty that it causes, all that to be caught in the middle of some political game, 🤷♂️ ... I'll let you be the judge of it whether it's worth it or not.
Do you have any questions, comments or simply wish to contact me privately? Don’t hesitate to shoot me a DM on Twitter.
Have a wonderful day.
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US immigration explained for American citizens by an immigrant.